Building a Global Online Strategy

The World is flat. If you have a website or run an online business, it is global by definition. As a business grows it starts thinking about how to optimize their online presence to better serve customers around the world.

Photo courtesy of wilmack via Creative Commons

The way it usually works is that a subsidiary uses part of its marketing budget to create a local site and local content. Over time this problem gets bigger and bigger, often ending up with multiple websites with no coherent strategy. The result is uncoordinated infrastructure investment efforts, inconsistent experience for customers, back-end integration challenges, privacy governance problems and continued investment in localization.

What is missing is a global online strategy. While building a global online strategy must be done in a way that is relevant to your own business, I want to offer a few ideas or best practices that could help:

1. A single online infrastructure and one global user experience.

In a world of global consumers, political boundaries and languages are becoming somewhat irrelevant (not totally, of course). Customers travel, migrate, commute and deliver services globally. B2B companies have subsidiaries and regional offices in multiple countries. Privacy, compliance and user experience governance is better done centrally. With all this under consideration, it makes more sense to have a single, adaptable, global site.

This means a single global infrastructure that allows you to have a single strategy, one investment and consistency across regions on aspects such as your content delivery network strategy, PCI/HIPAA compliance, video management platform, personalization, back-end/ERP integration, privacy compliance, CRM strategy, URL shortening, social strategy, etc..

It also means having a central point of view and strategy for user experience: registration, social integration, newsletter subscriptions, profile and personalization, order history, and other preferences.

Web infrastructure is not cheap: content management systems can be expensive, especially if you are buying one for every region. Implementation and maintenance (people) costs are usually about 10x the cost of the software, which means using Open Source instead of a commercial app can have marginal cost savings benefit, sometimes negative if open source requires more customization and maintenance. Maintaining multiple content management systems can get quite complex, especially when you consider content federation, syndication, localization and content lifecycle.

2. Define your language translation strategy and priorities

The two key pieces of information you need are country (for shipping as well as to present local stores, events, promotions, etc,) and language – these should be ideally two separate preferences.

Plan your user experience to allows international visitors to find their locale (country and language) quickly and can change their preferences easily. Their current IP address should be used for suggestions only – you don’t want all your sites to switch to Japanese if you travel to Tokyo for a week.

The first decision is to decide what languages require support and in wat priorities based on your business strategy. Start by understanding the revenue contribution from each country, primary languages – and most importantly, what countries and customer profiles require a localized online experience.

It could be that your target customer in a particular country actually prefers English content. This is common for technology buyers who perceive (correctly) that English content is more compete, more up to date and more accurate (free from translation mistakes).  It could also be that your buyer is more comfortable in English but the actual end users require localized language. It could be that the culture in a particular culture requires localization as a business courtesy and a sign that you care for customers in that country and respect their nationality.

Once you understand priorities, a site map should be used to determine what content needs to be translated. Some companies translate only the top one or two levels on their website, others only pre-sales content, others a mix based on more complex decision-making. A best practice I have observed when one the top-level of content is translated is that at content that is not localized is still made available but there is a mark on the link (as simple as an asterisk) that indicates the content behind that link is in English. Once you have this, you should start forming an idea of the amount of content required to support each additional language.

The next step is to decide on your localization process. It can be as sophisticated as manual, outsourced translation by native speakers to using Google translate. A balanced approach could use assisted translation: machine translation that is reviewed by translators for accuracy. Using a standard dictionary for consistency of use of technical terms, informal language expressions and phrases is a best practice here.

A very important, and often overlooked, part of this process is to think about how will you update content. This means having a strategy not only to translate the initial set of content, but also considering ongoing process to update content based on what changes in the original site. It also means building the dependencies between localized and original content in case the original content is retired, updated or deleted (i.e. for legal reasons).

3. True internationalization requires taking into account Culture

Building a global online presence is tricky because of all the little things that change from culture to culture. Certain colors, terms or images may be offensive in a particular culture. Certain words change meaning from country to country. There are historic cultural sensitivities that impact, for example, using Spanish from Spain in Latin America. Religion, business practice, privacy and many other factors come into play.

For large organizations. it is useful to establish a central location (i.e. a Wiki) with guidelines and tips to make content more culturally sensitive. This means, what colors to avoid, what tone to use when addressing specific cultures, what type of advertising or messages could be considered inappropriate, etc.

4. Centralization with Local Empowerment

Centralizing your online presence after the local marketing team has built a country or regional site can present organizational challenges. The local team should welcome the fact they won’t have to invest time and resources maintaining online infrastructure, however there will be a concern over loss of control and a legitimate need to be able to have control over local promotions, local activities and local content.

The worst possible outcome is that the new global site becomes the excuse for poor regional financial performance. This can be avoided if you involve the regional teams from the beginning of the project, if they provide input in the requirement gatherings phase and if the site is built to enable some degree of local control.

Most modern content management systems enable delegation features that make it easy to determine what parts of the site can be changes by regional teams and which ones should not. It is important to define these rules from the beginnig. For example, for brand consistency and IP protection, the global/corporate team should be defining global logo usage, site images, colors and overall brand image.

Local teams might have the ability to create certain number of pages, control local offers, maintain the local event calendar, promote local case studies, feature local press activities and influence the SEO strategy to include keywords relevant in a particular region. In other words, they could enjoy the benefits of a global site while still maintaining some level of autonomy and power to influence their local business.

All the decisions and points above have budget and process implications. How will they affect corp/local budget distribution? Who will pay for localization? what to do with existing web-aligned people in the regions? etc. No one said this would be easy.

5. Global Site as a Service and Governance.

This brings an interesting concept: The global online team as a service. For a central/global web team to be effective there needs to be an agreed SLA with the regions/subsidiaries and a defined process for capturing feedback and allowing them to participate in the definition of future development of new features and enhancements

Reciprocally, the local team must agree to abide by a set of agreed rules, made very clear in a policy document with specific enforcement controls, for aspects such as buying and using domains, social media participation, launching and maintaining tactical regional microsites, and probably most importantly, a customer data strategy, which brings us to the last point.

6. Customer Data and Privacy Strategy

In some countries, violation of privacy laws is punished severely and could result in people going to jail. In many global companies, a violation of the policy (creating a microsite around corp guidelines that allows customers to register or sending an email with an excel file with names and email addresses) results in immediate termination of the employee.

You probably have heard of the Google execs that went to jail for allowing an end-user to upload illegal content to YouTube in Italy, even after the video was taken down quickly after it was flagged. This is an extreme case, of course, the intention is not to scare you but to make you aware of the importance of the legal aspects one must consider, starting with privacy laws.

A basic set of guidelines will define what information should be captured, what re the guidelines for allowing people under age to register and what is considered ‘under age’ in each country, clear policies for handling PII (personally identifiable information) including how it should be stored (a central repository with encryption) and deletion, credit card information handling and PCI compliance, opt-in/opt-out, global unsubscribe and customer preferences.

It is a lot of work, yes. Is it easy? absolutely not. But it is certainly worthwhile. The Web is quickly becoming the most important customer interaction channel for all types of organizations – it already is for many. The good news? once you build a global online presence based on a solid strategy your company (and hopefully you) will enjoy its benefits for many years to come. I hope this posts helps you get there.